Rachel Harrington sings in a beautiful clean soprano voice. She plays guitar and guitjo, and her band includes mandolin, dobro, upright bass, and the wonderful Tim O’Brien on fiddle. I never heard of a guitjo either, but it must be the one that sounds like a banjo. So this must be a bluegrass album, right? Well, no. This is acoustic music, a mix of mostly original material with two traditional tunes and one cover. The band performs as an ensemble, with the bass sometimes helping with a melodic line, and the core band is joined by occasional pedal steel and a clarinet on one tune. Most songs are mid-tempo ballads, with two waltzes mixed in. So call this folk music, if you must have a label, but just make sure you listen.
Tim O’Brien is a very talented fiddler, and he is in high demand on the folk circuit. His presence here is no accident; there is a high level of musicianship on display. Listen to the opening riff in Karen Kane; before the song is over, you are going to hear it played, with variations, by every instrument in the band except the bass. It’s almost like listening to Bach.
Elsewhere, you will hear songs with very few words; Harrington lets the music carry the emotion in quite a few places. It never feels like a slight song has been stretched; the words say all that they must, and the band says the rest. Indeed, Harrington is not one to waste words. Under the Big Top, which closes the album, has only three lines of lyrics, sung twice. And yet, the song makes a strong statement, and it has the longest running time on the album.
It’s certainly true that some, and probably all, of these songs have different protagonists. And yet, City of Refuge, taken as a whole, tells a story. First, we meet two women who seek to break away from their circumstances. There is a statement of faith that something better can be built here on earth. Then the song Truman tells of a man who would not leave his home on Mt St. Helens because it held the memories of his dear departed wife; in the end, he is a ghost still riding on the mountain in his pink Cadillac. Carver is based on the works of Raymond Carver, and is a somewhat ambiguous declaration of love. The next two songs have sparse lyrics, and hint at death to come.
And then there is Ode To Billy Joe. Yes, this is the cover I mentioned earlier. This song has been the subject of great speculation. There are many details missing in the telling of the story. And Harrington chooses to drop two verses. She leaves out the middle verse about the brother. And she drops the final verse, which takes stock of the situation a year later. So the original story is now distilled. And the song, with all its mysteries, becomes the thematic center of the album. For Harrington, there is love, and the risk that goes with it, and there is loss, in the form of death. The details take a variety of forms in these songs, but the process of working through it is what interests her. And that comes through very clearly.
There are two more songs to close the album. There is a reaffirmation of faith, but this time it is faith in a better life in the hereafter. And finally, there is Under the Big Top, which comes across in context as an elegy for the departed.
So this is by no means a feel good album. But it is also not the downer that I may have made it sound like. The album as a whole is a remarkable piece of storytelling, and it leaves the listener feeling the comfort that can come from just the right person in times of stress. Rachel Harrington is that person here.
Rachel Harrington: Karen Kane
Rachel Harrington: Ode to Billy Joe